by Tim Markatos
“All models are wrong,” the saying goes among statisticians, “but some are useful.” The modern language of LGBTQ+ identity, while often unhelpfully obfuscating the boundaries between ontology, phenomenology, and epistemology, has been tremendously helpful in uniting and giving voice to people whose experience of sexual attraction and gender is at odds with what the majority of society (often uncritically) prescribes as normative. Within the LGBTQ+ Christian community, one finds a further distinction between Side A Christians—those who believe that God blesses sexual expression in same-sex marriage—and Side B Christians—those who believe that sexual activity is reserved for followers of Christ in the context of the sacrament of marriage, as described by the Church as the union of one man and one woman, but who also reject the narrative that one’s sexual orientation can (or should) be changed or reversed.
Revoice, an evangelical conference now in its second year, was founded as the outgrowth of years of conversation, writing, and community-building among Side B LGBTQ+ Christians. The conference is both ecumenical (speakers included Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox), and inviting. While the conference adheres to well-defined understandings of sexual ethics, Christian posture and witness, and racial diversity, the Revoice organizers have created a space for anyone interested in exploring the history, traditions, and practices of Christian approaches to sexuality, celibacy, and community, regardless of whether one considers oneself Side B or Side A.
This year’s conference featured keynote addresses by Wesley Hill, an Episcopalian author whose memoir Washed and Waiting has served as a touchstone for many Side B LGBTQ+ Christians, and who is known more broadly as an insightful, nonpartisan commentator writing for Commonweal, First Things, and other high-profile Christian publications; Johanna Finegan, an MIT doctorate in philosophy who has borne witness to the Side B community through her experience of being called into a mixed-orientation marriage to a straight man (Finegan identifies as gay); Mark Yarhouse, director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University and author of many peer-reviewed articles and books on the intersections of faith, sexual, and gender identities; and Revoice founder Nate Collins.
There is something almost indescribably powerful about sitting in a room full of 600 people collectively going “Hmmmm!” as LGBTQ+ Christians speak to stories and experiences that each of us individually had come to believe (or been told to believe) were not worth discussing publicly. Finegan struck an especially loud chord with her audience, citing the willingness of Side B Christians to share vulnerably their stories of pain, failure, and despair—as well as their stories of finding hope, intimacy, and love—as part of the appeal of the conference over and above alternative voices across Christian cultures.
Finegan also received a passionate response to her claim that “a lot of us are tired of random heterosexual opinions.” These opinions tend to fall into polar extremes: on the one hand, people who wish the church would just let LGBTQ+ people marry already, and on the other people who are convinced that so much as employing LGBTQ+ terminology to make sense of one’s life is a grave danger to one’s soul. To the frustration of many in the Side B community, neither camp seems especially interested in listening to us and walking with us where we are.
In between worship sessions, keynote addresses, and personal testimonies from conference attendees, additional speakers led workshops on topics including healing from spiritual abuse, finding family and community outside of marriage, and practical advice for how churches can better minister to the LGBTQ+ people in their midst. Of the workshops that I was able to attend, I was particularly moved by Ty Wyss’s talk on healing from shame (and his observation that “people don’t feel loved when you try to fix them”) and Catholic writer Eve Tushnet’s talk on ecstasy and celibacy. (Full disclosure: I am a close friend of Tushnet.)
Acknowledging that she is neither a historian nor a theologian, Tushnet enraptured her audience with a wide-ranging discussion of Christian thinking on celibacy throughout history, raising almost more questions than answers in the process: is an attitude of sexual entitlement a form of wealth that Christ may be calling Christians to give up? How can Christians pursuing celibacy avoid the fetishization of their own misery? What are fruitful ways for single people, gay, straight, or otherwise, to inhabit the inherent and difficult ambiguity of singleness? I was also intrigued by Grant Hartley’s talk, in which he reframes queer culture as an avenue for missiology on the basis of the grace that queer people have experienced through it.
Orthodox Christians who find themselves skeptical of LGBTQ+ language and hesitant to engage our communities would benefit from witnessing the consequences that enforced scrupulosity has had on LGBTQ+ people in the Church, and the joy with which we nevertheless worship the Christ who loves us. To those in the Orthodox Church who tend more progressive on normative questions of sexual behavior, I would urge caution in making assumptions about the conference and its attendees from afar. Those who do not believe that Christ necessarily asks lifelong celibacy of LGBTQ+ Christians ought to heed Paulo Freire’s claim that a critical pedagogy that would seek to liberate the consciences of LGBTQ+ Christians from captivity to injustice “must be forged with, not for the oppressed.”
Where I believe the Orthodox may make a distinct contribution to Revoice is in our understanding of sin. Many of the conference speakers approached sinfulness and humanity’s fallen condition through an Augustinian or Calvinist frame. These approaches do not sit well with me as an Orthodox Christian, and I would welcome a conversation that reframes the discussion of normative behavior for LGBTQ+ people around Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s formulation: “Sin is not to believe in Christ. Nothing should be called sin other than not to transform religion into the knowledge, the love and the life of Christ.”
Until then, Revoice has proven to be a valuable space for LGBTQ+ Christians to find healing, solidarity, joy, and hope as we seek to follow Christ more truly, and freely, without fear of antagonism or misunderstanding from churches that have historically been prone to treat us with both. The conference reached its apex when Renee Higgins of South City Church addressed the audience at the close of the final plenary session. “I’ve been praying for y’all like a mother for her children,” she began, before astonishing us with the fruits of her prayers in a hair-raising sermon on Christ’s miracle of calling Lazarus forth from the dead.
Christ calls us as we are, not as we are supposed to be. He calls us whether we have never given thought to how to describe the way we understand our attractions or whether we put a name to it. He calls us whether our experience and expression of gender matches our biological sex or not. He calls us in marriage, He calls us in singleness, He calls us in community. He calls us if we have found healing and joy and life with a same-sex partner and He calls us if we long for one even while striving to live celibately. He calls us to Himself because He loves us and He mourns with us and He desires us to find new life in Him. The call of Christ is the call that sexual and gender minorities, their families, and their allies heard at Revoice. Do they hear it in the Orthodox Church?
Tim Markatos is a writer and designer living in Washington, D.C.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.